The desire for skins may be from reverence for leopards, but many Shembe seem to not realize the jeopardy in which they are placing the cats or that owning their skin is illegal. This is putting tremendous pressure on the leopard population and has opened a lucrative market for anyone able to supply skins, some coming from as far afield as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.
Surveys suggest that between 1,500 and 2,500 leopards are killed each year to meet the Shembe's demand, with roughly 15,000 skins already in circulation. It is probably the largest collection of illegal wildlife contraband anywhere in the world. In comparison, the number of trophy leopards exported in 12 years between 2001 and 2013 was 1,270.
Until recently, officials turned a blind eye to the traditional practice because it was considered culturally sensitive. But leopard harvesting is now so huge that the Department of Environmental Affairs is realizing that urgent action is required.
West African warriors known as 'leopard men' tranquilize a leopard and drink its blood from a small incision then let it go. They believe this gives them courage and strength and that they are linked to the cat for the rest of their lives.Don Pinnock